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The tricky politics of political discourse in the workplace

By Emanuella Grinberg, CNN
updated 9:44 AM EST, Tue January 31, 2012
We don't choose who we work with, so it's important to maintain a good relationship in the office.
We don't choose who we work with, so it's important to maintain a good relationship in the office.
  • With Republican primaries under way, politics becomes water cooler talk
  • Those who've been there prefer to keep political discourse of out the workplace
  • "No discussion ever ends civilly, nobody wins," public relations specialist says
  • Expert: Talking politics can work if you know your audience and focus on fact, etiquette

(CNN) -- It seemed like a harmless comment, or so Mario Almonte thought at the time.

The year was 1992, and Bill Clinton had just appeared on "The Arsenio Hall Show" to play a rendition of "Heartbreak Hotel" on his saxophone. Almonte thought it was entertaining; his supervisor, on the other hand, thought the stunt "demeaned the office of president of the United States," Almonte recalls.

Almonte offered his opinion to his supervisor and that he "relax." It turned out to be the wrong choice of words, he said.

"He immediately got upset and started arguing with me, and for nearly half an hour, we kept arguing about the issue until we finally both walked away in disgust," said Almonte, a public relations specialist in New York who was not associated with the show or Clinton's campaign.

"For the next several weeks, every time he talked to me, he would throw in a jab at my opinion, and it would take all my willpower to keep myself from taking the bait."

The jabs eventually died down, but the damage was done, Almonte said. With that, he learned a lesson: never talk politics in the workplace.

"Most people are so passionately committed to their viewpoints that no discussion ever ends civilly, nobody wins, and nothing comes of it but a shouting match," he said.

It may seem like common sense, but with the Republican primary season entering full swing, political discourse tends to spill over into the workplace. Among the rank and file, there's a chance that political discourse can work around the water cooler if you know your audience, human resource and etiquette experts say.

"Don't assume other people believe what you believe," said etiquette expert Anna Post with the Emily Post Institute. "You don't choose who you work with, so it's really important that that relationship is a good one."

In other words, it's a risky gamble. If you can't keep it civil, or you're not sure the other person can, keep it to yourself, the experts agree.

"As we get closer to the election and the rhetoric gets even more heated, it's even more advisable to leave your politics at home," said Dean Debnam, CEO of Workplace Options, a workplace training benefits firm.

"You need to create an environment that feels comfortable and productive in every way to employees if you want to get the best out of them."

Most companies aren't likely to have a formal policy on the discussion of politics. But there are policies regulating against a hostile work environment, said Debnam, a North Carolina Democrat who also runs a polling organization.

"From the management point of view, there's a need to be mindful of not creating a hostile environment, and that includes being intolerant of direct reports' beliefs on politics or otherwise."

Some companies attract employees of a certain political persuasion, but that's usually clear coming in the door, he said.

"If you're going to take a job with the Catholic Church, you know what they're about," he said. "But to come into something that's supposed to be neutral and then feel pressure to take a certain position that you don't want to, that's not OK."

If you're dying to discuss last night's debate, avoid judgmental language and focus on facts over feelings, Post said.

"You want to keep this as undebatable as possible," Post said. "You also need to be wiling to swallow the last word, be able to agree to disagree and be willing to bow out before it escalates."

Now a manager at another company, Almonte, the New York-based public relations specialist, prefers to avoid the topic of politics altogether.

"I don't get involved, and I do discourage it," he said. "With politics and sports, it seems like there's rarely a middle ground to be reached. And that's not good for business."

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